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Mayor Ali discusses the progress of Peoria’s quest for train service

An Amtrak conductor wearing a protective mask looks down the train platform at the Galesburg station Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Galesburg. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)
Shafkat Anowar/AP
An Amtrak conductor wearing a protective mask looks down the train platform at the Galesburg station Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Galesburg. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

The effort to bring passenger rail service back to the Peoria area continues to progress and evolve.

Mayor Rita Ali and other project stakeholders met virtually last week with officials from the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Highway Administration. The conversations were part of the process to finalize the proposed route between Peoria and Chicago.

In Part One of a two-part conversation with reporter Joe Deacon, Mayor Ali provides an update on where the passenger rail proposal stands. This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Joe Deacon: Can you give us an update on the passenger rail effort? I understand there's been some recent conversations with federal agencies to work through parts of the proposal. How is everything progressing?

Mayor Rita Ali: Things are progressing well, lots of momentum because many people along the proposed route, those cities, those elected officials, those mayors, those representatives from the state and federal government, are also getting involved. We started with a team of about 20 local Peoria-area leaders, and now we have about 47 people involved in our monthly meetings. So it's very encouraging. The study continues, however, with the feasibility study, it will wrap up sometime in April, I would say probably around the end of April. The interest survey has been pretty phenomenal with over 32,000 people responding to that survey.

What have the discussions with the federal agencies been like that happened last week?

Ali: Those have been very encouraging. We had one with the Federal Railroad Administration and another with Amtrak. These were leaders within those organizations, leaders that former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood knew; many of them were part of his staff when he worked in that capacity. So he was really instrumental and opened the doors for us to have these meetings.

They were all virtual meetings, because that's kind of the structure that they have in place right now. There were virtual meetings. So we met with the folks in Washington, D.C., and our key stakeholders here, probably about six of us locally met with them. They find our project very interesting. We are looking to apply to become a part of what they call the Corridor Identification Program. We have to apply to get into that program; it’s competitive, and that application process will open up in May.

What is the benefit of adding a stop in Utica to the route? Does adding this stop increase the possibilities of getting this project approved?

Ali: Well, I think what really increases the possibility is having more stakeholders involved from the cities along the proposed route. Utica is a route that we wanted to add because that's where Starved Rock State Park is located. And we thought it wouldn't have to be a route where there were five trains a day, that perhaps it could be a more seasonal-type of stop, especially during the spring, summer and fall seasons.

What can you tell us about what you're anticipating with the high-cost estimate for constructing this route? Are you concerned at all that the price tag for the period of Chicago route might be prohibitive?

Ali: I think that the price tag will be high, it will likely look exorbitant. However, I don't believe that it will be out of line with other projects that were funded primarily by the Federal Railroad Administration. We are looking to have this project funded primarily by the federal government, and we want this to be a priority project for them as the largest metropolitan area in Illinois without passenger rail. We believe it's going to be a high cost, but again, we don't believe that it's going to be out of line with what they typically find in these instances.

I know the primary focus is to get a route toward Chicago. Is there any thought of then going the opposite direction, maybe approaching a region to the south?

Ali: So we did consider more of an east-west route versus a north-south. However, we were encouraged to go with the Chicago route, because Chicago is a national hub; you get to Chicago, and you can get everywhere else in the nation. And because the proposed route was a former route, that made it more attractive, more feasible, and that's why that route was identified.

But I guess my thinking is, would Peoria always then be the end of the line for this route? Or could it potentially be expanded in another direction?

Ali: Right, so where we would want to expand this route is to Springfield, that would take it closer to St. Louis. From Springfield, you can actually get to St. Louis, and you know, there is a route from Chicago to St. Louis. So that would tie us in, the Springfield would tie us in. Again, that would add additional cost, and likely come at a later time period.

I understand the city is narrowing down the possibilities for a downtown train station. What are the current options looking like right now?

Ali: Well, we're very interested in looking at a riverfront type location. Some locations on the riverfront might include the post office; that's an area that's been looked at. It might include the old River Station, it might include the Gateway Building and even further down. But I think that, you know, there's a study – $50,000 from the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission – that is dedicated to identifying a location alongside the river.

So what are the next steps for moving forward on the passenger rail proposal?

So moving forward again, the feasibility study goes forth. A ridership study is very critical. It's underway right now; it's been underway for about two weeks and it will likely go through April. The ridership study is going to be an essential piece of telling us whether this is a viable project.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.